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Animism in Senegal

Senegalese masks arrayed. One of the most famous represents of African animism.

Senegalese masks arrayed. One of the most famous represents of African animism.

Animism and Spirits

Senegal is a country where 95% of the population is Muslim, 5% is Christian, and 100% of the population is Animist.

This quote, which originates as a paraphrase of one by a professor of mine, can be taken to excess but also provides an excellent summary of religion in Senegal. Senegal is a secular country, but also one which is overwhelmingly Muslim except for a small Catholic minority. In saying this however, there continues to be significant animist influences on religion in Senegal, and this animism can be a strong and potent force still, especially in rural regions. It would be foolish to try to discuss all of the elements of Senegalese animism, as they differ dramatically between different groups in Senegal, but a few basic parts can be conveyed easily enough.

In its basic form, animism believes that everything - plant, animal, object - has a soul. There are four elements, these being water, air, fire, and water, much as with the Greek system. A supreme being of some sort exists, but there are privileged intermediaries with it that exist as gods in their own right, these possessing specific functions and being associated with specific elements among the aforementioned ones. To deal with the sacred from the human level, there are intermediaries themselves, these both living humans, and the extremely powerful ancestors.

Spirits can sometimes become physically represented to others. Whirlwinds are two spirits fighting; these storms of dust in larger form, in sandstorms, symbolize the presence of large numbers of spirits. During times when there are few humans around (such as the extremely hot 1-3 in the afternoon, or in the dead of night at 1-3), spirits come out. Spirits do not like the presence of large numbers of people, and do not like noise. Like us, spirits are born, grow old, marry, and die. There are both wicked and good spirits; all protecting spirits are female, and identified with the Coumba name, such as the protector of Gorée being Coumba Castel, or Saint-Louis by Coumba Bang.

It must be noted that animism has been on the retreat continually, under offense from Islam, but the two continue to influence each other. Still, many Senegalese do not look with favor upon their animist counterparts, going so far as ostracizing their "backwards" counterparts. Senegal is a society in flux, and naturally the degree in which these elements hold true vary dramatically by region.

Senegalese taxi with a goat tail on it

Senegalese taxi with a goat tail on it


By far the most famous of any African religious object is the "fetish". As in African animism, any object is imbued with certain spiritual values, fetishes exist as collections, or carvings, which grant them spiritual significance.

Perhaps the most obvious and clear to see good luck token that one might find in Senegal is upon taxis. Senegalese taxis will often have a goat tail on the back of the vehicle. This rather surrealist connection is due to a belief in the spirit of the animal. Having such a tail on the car is a good luck token, which is often done by the more superstition taxi drivers. Also sometimes used on taxis and buses are child shoes, which are supposed to prevent getting into a crash.... I suppose it would be a rather rude awakening if they did get into a crash. Perhaps that is where the child shoes come from. This is not the limit to the good luck charms, and apparently almost everybody has a good luck charm of some sort; a student at the University of Dakar related bringing his cell phone into exams, not to use it, but because it was a good luck sign.

Part and parcel of protection against negative energy and spirits, are black bracelets which are supposed to drain negative energy. Meanwhile, red bracelets identify us as humans to spirits.

A shoe in a bus, another lucky charm for the roadways.

A shoe in a bus, another lucky charm for the roadways.

West African witch

West African witch


Senegalese Islam is dominated by several brotherhoods which are lead by marabouts, which are religious leaders. Animism in Senegal is less centralized, but there still exist marabouts which constitute religious functions for animism. Fetishists, witch doctors, and wizards all exist, and are typically supposed to have a capacity to find a particular rapport with nature. Often they do their work alone, secluded in closed rooms in houses.

In general, there is a distinction between rural and urban marabouts; urban ones tend to be much more monetized than their rural equivalents, who are conversely more community based. Attending to animist marabouts is common enough, that in some families a certain part of the budget may be set asides for them! Of course, this is not universal, and as elsewhere the rate at which Senegalese take advantage of animist traditions varies extensively.

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Witches in African society are quite different than their European counterparts, and not only for the reason that African witches continue to be more prevalent than the European type, with European-style witches largely reduced to halloween celebrations. African witches as conceived are capable of eating the soul, and otherwise causing harm, at a distance; this is achieved by taking a piece of the victim's physical body (this can range down to fingernail clippings or hair), and using it to cast a spell. Not everything to do with witches is harmful though; they can also cast spells for protection or for healing.

Predicting the future is an important element of Senegalese animism. This is a function which is fulfilled by setkats. In Wolof, set is to see, and kat converts this to a noun; their English equivalent might be seers or diviners. These diviners interpret dreams, determining what they mean as omens and what will come to pass from them.

A baobab tree silhouetted against the sun.

A baobab tree silhouetted against the sun.

Plants and Animals

As with other elements, there is great importance which is attached to animals. These includes both wild animals, and animals as victims and sacrifices. Among the most dangerous is the hippo. A physical hippo is of course, extremely dangerous, but in Senegal hippopotami are gods of rivers, supposedly capable of using their mental power at range to cause harm. Manatees are supposedly former beautiful Fulani women who had been bathing nude in rivers, and when her in-laws had appeared, stricken with shame at her nakedness, she prayed to the river gods to transform herself into an animal and hence she becomes a manatee.

When people are ill, animals such as a goat are put next to them, supposed to drain the negative energy. The animal is then killed, sacrificed, and the sick covered with the blood.

Sacred plants and plants intensely associated with spirits exist as well. Baobab trees are a tree which is especially well-known for having spirits, and children at night are supposed to stay away from them, as the tree hosts dangerous spirits. Sometimes iron nails are hammered into them, supposed to trap the spirits. Offerings are also given, such as shoes or clothing. Sacred forests, consisting of the results of the dead planted with seeds (with the trees supposed to be the reincarnation of their spirit), serve as the closest thing that animism has to mosques or churches, and are carefully preserving against being cut down, to be used as sites for ceremonies and rites of passage.


In the morning, for good luck, water is poured in front of houses or shops in the morning. Coincidentally, this might be the best time to go shopping in markets; in addition to it being cool in the morning, if one is the first shopper at a stall, the tradition is that one has to give whatever the customer says as a price, or else one will get no business the rest of the day. For forgiveness, giving kola nuts continues to exist, the kola nut enjoying certain spiritual connections. In addition, a tradition of walking on clothes before wearing them, for good luck, persists.

There are certain superstitions which arise from this belief in spirits. These are both "bad", and "good", as in some reflect perceived positive virtues which come from spirits, while others represent harms that can come. To start with some negative ones, babies are never supposed to be left alone in houses, as this can result in them being preyed on by negative spirits. The fear is that they will be stolen away by bad spirits with a sick child to replace them; if the child really must be left unattended, they are surrounded with iron, black objects, and given a knife, to protect themselves. Meanwhile, before crossing a river, a fisherman must be found to find the appropriate way across in not disturbing the spirits, and/or sacrifices must be made.

Plates are not washed at night, under the belief that ancestors might eat the food there, giving them a meal. Instead they are cleaned come the morning. Ancestors in general command a great degree of reverence as spiritual intermediaries, with votive offerings being left to them, and the aforementioned marabouts being used to get into contact with them.

A particularity is that mentioning specific things might sometimes mean that bad events will occur to whatever it is that is mentioned. For example, if one asks the specific number of people in a house, and the answer is given, then custom has it that one of the persons in the house will die within a year. Instead one might do an indirect way of phrasing it, with the example tendered phrased as "how many bits of god's wood are here". Upon receiving compliments, generally the response is to try to brush them off - too much in the way of compliments means that something negative will happen to what is being complimented, like if one is beautiful then the result is that one will lose one's beauty. Somewhat related with harm to people,

There are a great number of different rituals and customs which are characteristic of these animist faiths. Vital to any agricultural society has always been the coming of the rain, whether there is too much or if there is too little. The result of this is the presence of rain ceremonies. For summoning rain, the Wolof and Lebu peoples (two ethnic groups in Senegal), appeal to the bawnane. In this ceremony, worshippers are gathered in a procession, marching towards the sea and throwing maize, curd, and millet for summoning. Burying salt is by contrast, a way to stop rain. The Serer people will hold their own ceremonies for divining what will come in the future, called xooy, or divination, bringing together masses of people who predict the future. Votive offerings, such as sour milk, are supposed to appease spirits.

Mentioning this all would be limited with a mention of one of the defining elements of animism; its relationship to death. In Senegal, when death occurs, the result is not mourning but rather celebration. This is of course not due to hatred of the living, but instead, as the dead live on as spirits and are not truly dead, to mark the passage of phases of life.

Festivities at a Funeral

Poem of Birago Diop, entitled in this English Translation Spirits

"Listen to Things
More often than Beings,
Hear the voice of fire,
Hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind,
To the sighs of the bush;
This is the ancestors breathing.

Those who are dead are not ever gone;
They are in the darkness that grows lighter
And in the darkness that grows darker.
The dead are not down in the earth;
They are in the trembling of the trees
In the groaning of the woods,
In the water that runs,
In the water that sleeps,
They are in the hut, they are in the crowd:
The dead are not dead.

Listen to things
More often than beings,
Hear the voice of fire,
Hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind,
To the bush that is sighing:
This is the breathing of ancestors,
Who have not gone away
Who are not under earth
Who are not really dead.

Those who are dead are not ever gone;
They are in a woman’s breast,
In the wailing of a child,
And the burning of a log,
In the moaning rock,
In the weeping grasses,
In the forest and the home.
The dead are not dead.

Listen more often
To Things than to Beings,
Hear the voice of fire,
Hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind to
The bush that is sobbing:
This is the ancestors breathing.

Each day they renew ancient bonds,
Ancient bonds that hold fast
Binding our lot to their law,
To the will of the spirits stronger than we
To the spell of our dead who are not really dead,
Whose covenant binds us to life,
Whose authority binds to their will,
The will of the spirits that stir
In the bed of the river, on the banks of the river,
The breathing of spirits
Who moan in the rocks and weep in the grasses.

Spirits inhabit
The darkness that lightens, the darkness that darkens,
The quivering tree, the murmuring wood,
The water that runs and the water that sleeps:
Spirits much stronger than we,
The breathing of the dead who are not really dead,
Of the dead who are not really gone,
Of the dead now no more in the earth.

Listen to Things
More often than Beings,
Hear the voice of fire,
Hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind,
To the bush that is sobbing:
This is the ancestors, breathing."

--Birago Diop

© 2017 Ryan Thomas

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